Briefing With Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams On Developments in Iran and Venezuela

16 Sep

Elliott Abrams, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela

Via Teleconference

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much and good afternoon, everybody. I know we’re having this call right after we did the press conference with the Secretary and we have another briefing later today, so apologies that we’re piling all of you up today. We’re going to try to allow for as much time as possible for Q&A (inaudible) many of you have it. But just want to reiterate, of course, that this is an on-the-record briefing with Special Representative for Venezuela and now also for Iran Elliott Abrams. While this is an on-the-record briefing, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, please.

This is actually Elliott’s first press briefing since he assumed both roles. He will of course begin with an introductory statement and then we’ll turn over to your questions. Just a reminder, you can press 1 and then 0 at any point in time on (inaudible) to enter the question queue.

So with that, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to Special Representative Abrams.

MR ABRAMS: Thanks, Morgan. I want to begin with a comment on Venezuela and the fraudulent election for the National Assembly now scheduled for December 6th, and then turn to Iran.

None of the basic conditions for free elections exist in Venezuela. Opposition parties have been stolen and regime agents appointed to run them; the national elections commission is completely under regime control; freedom of the press does not exist; repression and intimidation by the police and colectivo gangs continues. There are not reliable and tested voting machines in Venezuela. The rules of the game were recently changed by the regime, which created over 100 new National Assembly seats and changed voting district lines. I could go on. And this is precisely why Interim President Juan Guaido and a coalition of 37 parties has said they would not legitimize this fraud by participating in the election. Needless to say, those conditions will not be cured merely by postponement; fraudulent elections are no less fraudulent if held a few months later.

A cornerstone of our policy in Venezuela has been to support the diverse and broad array of democratic actors fighting for liberty and democracy there. To those who have decided to participate in the National Assembly elections, our message is that you have a special obligation to demand the necessary, internationally accepted conditions for free and fair elections, and to speak openly about the repression and corruption of the Maduro regime.

We are able to distinguish between democratic actors who differ on strategy and people who work with the regime to undermine democracy. We will not hesitate to apply the full force of U.S. sanctions to the latter group, as we have been doing in the last few years. To all Venezuelans who struggle for free elections and a restoration of democracy, we continue to pledge our full support. And as you know, Secretary Pompeo will be visiting all of Venezuela’s neighbors – Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana – in a trip that starts tomorrow.

I would draw your attention to the report of the United Nations Human Rights Council today by the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela. This United Nations mission, quote, “found reasonable grounds to believe that Venezuelan authorities and security forces have since 2014 planned and executed serious human rights violations, some of which” – still quoting – “some of which – including arbitrary killings and the systematic use of torture – amount to crimes against humanity,” close quote. And then in an extraordinary statement for a UN report, it says, quote, “the mission has reasonable grounds to believe that both the president and the ministers of people’s power for interior relations, justice and peace, and for defense, ordered or contributed to the commission of these crimes documented in this report,” close quote. These crimes, says the UN, crimes against humanity, start at the top.

Now, we’re aware of reports of additional tankers heading to Venezuela from Iran, and that’s another reminder of how Maduro has destroyed Venezuela’s economy and infrastructure through incompetence and mismanagement and corruption and created the need to import gasoline into this oil-rich country. The installed crude oil refinery capacity in Venezuela is 1,300,000 barrels a day. But that corruption and neglect have reduced actual gasoline refined to less than 5 percent of that. So the regime turned to another international pariah, Iran, shipping it gold to buy gasoline.

As you know, virtually all UN sanctions on Iran will come back into place this weekend at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday the 19th. The arms embargo will now be re-imposed indefinitely and other restrictions will return, including the ban on Iran engaging in enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, the prohibition on ballistic missile testing and development, and sanctions on the transfer of nuclear and missile-related technologies to Iran.

The Secretary said just a couple of hours ago that we expect all UN member states to implement the UN sanctions fully and respect the process and obligations to uphold these sanctions. We’ll have a lot more to say on this, in detail, on Monday.

This is a good moment to reflect on the almost religious commitment of some countries to that nuclear deal. But five years of JCPOA meetings have not moderated Iran’s tactics or choices at all. It’s time for peace-loving nations to recognize this reality and join us in imposing sanctions on Iran. It is astonishing that anyone would think or have thought it sensible to allow the arms embargo on Iran to expire next month, given that regime’s role in destabilizing Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon and its continuing support for terrorism.

I want to close with the story of Navid Afkari, the young Iranian wrestling champion. In the summer of 2018, Navid joined a peaceful protest along with his two brothers. The regime arrested all three of them and tortured them into confessing for a murder that took place when they were in a completely different part of town. The regime wanted to make an example of them and, as you know, executed Navid last weekend.

This is a terrible reminder of the brutal and despotic regime with which we are dealing. I would remind you that yesterday Siamak Namazi celebrated his 49th birthday in the notorious Evin Prison. That marked 1,800 days – 1,800 days since the Iranian regime first took him hostage. Siamak, his father Baquer, and Morad Tahbaz remain innocent victims of the Iranian regime and we work every single day to gain their release.

Thanks, and I’m happy to take questions on either Venezuela or Iran.

MS ORTAGUS: Wonderful. Okay, great. First up in the queue is Gabriela Perozo, VPITV.

QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thank you so much for this opportunity. Do you think that this new report presented by the UN independent mission will help Europe not allow itself to be manipulated by this new strategy of Maduro to release political prisoners to achieve a dialogue? Do you believe that the UN General Assembly will be a good platform to reaffirm the strategy around the Interim President Guaido?

And another question: Will Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Brazil and Colombia bring some surprises, maybe something new against the Maduro regime? Thank you.

MR ABRAMS: Thanks. Well, as to the Secretary’s trip bringing surprises, of course if I said anything, it wouldn’t be surprises. There will be a briefing about the trip and I will let and, during the trip, the Secretary speak about the trip.

On your first question, I sure hope so. This is an extraordinary report to come from the United Nations. We’re not used to seeing such tough reporting coming directly from the United Nations. So I hope it will have an impact on any government that is thinking about its policy toward the Maduro regime. This begins with a meeting – an important meeting – tomorrow of the International Contact Group on Venezuela, which will obviously issue a statement, as they always do. So I think this will remind people of the nature of the regime and remind them that the release of some political prisoners – in some cases partial release because they’re released to house arrest or the charges have not yet been dropped, and many others have not been released – this is a regime move that, as your question really suggested, is a tactic that does not change the nature of the regime and its systematic human rights violations, which are documented in this very substantial report.

As to the UN General Assembly, I don’t know whether it will affect how the assembly votes on Venezuela. I really hope it will and I think that there will be a lot of governments around the world that will read this report, and particularly for those who don’t follow Venezuela closely it will be a revelation.

MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you so much. We’ll now turn it over to Matt Lee, AP.

QUESTION: Thanks, Elliott. I have a – my questions are about Iran. You guys can say all you want that you expect UN member-states to go ahead and join you in enforcing the sanctions that you say are going to be reimposed, but the reality of the situation is that no one – no other country – exception for maybe Israel and maybe the Gulf, some of the Gulf countries – think that you have the legal standing to do this and so they’re not going to enforce them. So why is it wrong for people to think that you guys are just barreling ahead with something that is going to create major problems for the UN in terms of its credibility and the credibility of the Security Council, as well as U.S. credibility? Thanks.

MR ABRAMS: Thanks, Matt. Secretary Pompeo did address similar questions, and I’ll answer your question as best I can, but I would urge you to take a look also at what he said at about noon today in the press conference with Foreign Secretary Raab. I do remember a couple of years ago the many, many expert opinions suggesting that the unilateral imposition of sanctions by the United States would have no effect on Iran, and as the Secretary said, boy, all you have to do is look at the Iranian economy to see that that is not true. And the reason that it was not true is that whatever foreign ministries said, individuals, businesspersons, banks, companies around the world paid attention to the sanctions and did not wish to violate them. I think you will see that happen again with respect to the reimposition of UN sanctions. I think that all of those individual actors around the world will take a look at the text of those sanctions and what the United States is saying and will realize that for them, the UN sanctions must be regarded as back into effect. So I do think that this will have a very significant impact.

I don’t – and I think it’s – the United States, first of all, is not isolated with respect to the arms embargo. I think and we know from our conversations there are many countries around the world that feel exactly as we do, including in Europe, about the expiration of the arms embargo. There was a letter from the Gulf Cooperation Council, all the members, to the UN Security Council, saying please do not let the UN arms embargo end. And as the Secretary said, what we’re dealing with here is an effort on the part of the United States to overcome the diplomatic malpractice five years ago that suggested it would be a good idea to allow Iran to import and export any – any arms it wanted to – main battle tanks, combat jets – in only five years. That’s what we’re up against and that’s why we’re taking this action.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you so much. Okay, I’m going to try not to mispronounce the name here. Haik, H-a-i-k, Garats, G-a-r-a-t-s, from Argus Media.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Haik Gugarats with Argus Media. Thank you. I have two questions for you, sir, one on Venezuela and one on Iran.

On Venezuela, what is your current thinking on the diesel-for-crude swaps? Are your efforts to persuade companies not to participate in those working, and if not, do you think at some point a government directive to end it via sanctions will be necessary?

And on Iran snapback, I’m trying to understand the practical effect given that you just said unilateral U.S. sanctions pretty much already ended most dealings between Iran and all the other countries. So what is it exactly that your snapback will do in ending any new transactions? Is it humanitarian deals, or what exactly will be the practical effect? Thank you.

MR ABRAMS: Thanks. On the latter question, not humanitarian deals, there are carveouts in all – all U.S. sanctions for humanitarian goods such as food and medicine. But I’ll give you an example of where we expect a practical effect: the arms embargo. And as you know, it was the position of the United States that the arms embargo should be extended, and had it been extended, we would not have had to snap back to restore the full panoply of UN sanctions. So one practical effect, we believe, will be to say to arms manufacturers and traders around the world that if you engage in business with Iran, the very full force of these new or, rather, restored sanctions will be felt immediately. They will be placed on you. So I think you will see that happen.

With respect to diesel and the impact of U.S. sanctions, I would just note first: You may have seen the decision by Tipco, the asphalt company, which has been a significant consumer of Venezuelan oil and deals with the regime, and PDVSA has announced that it is getting out of that business. We’re looking very carefully at the diesel question and we note, for example, that the Maduro regime is consistently shipping diesel and other oil products to Cuba. I have no announcements to make today, but I think it’s pretty well known that we’re reviewing the whole diesel question.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Carol Morello, Washington Post.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Elliott, you just said that arms dealers around the world will realize that the restored sanctions will be felt immediately. Are you making concrete plans now for secondary sanctions after the embargo officially expires next month? And do you have any thoughts on what the impact – having a confrontation with U.S. allies, Russia, China, Iran, and the Security Council itself might – just two weeks before the election – might have on the vote itself?

MR ABRAMS: First, in our view, the UN sanctions snap back on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. So the October – I think it’s October 18th, the date for the end of the UN arms embargo – becomes a less significant date. As to whether we are making concrete plans, we are in many ways, and we will have some announcements over the weekend and more announcements on Monday and then subsequent days next week as to exactly how we are planning to enforce these returned UN sanctions. So you’ll see that. We actually have some announcements this week, but more on Saturday and then more on Monday and next week. I don’t think that this action on the part of the United States to enforce Resolution 2231 will have a negative impact on the UN Security Council unless other members of the Council continue to take the view that the UN sanctions have not returned and can be ignored. And whether those countries will in fact ignore the UN sanctions remains to be seen. We followed the procedures exactly set forth in Resolution 2231 word for word.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thank you. We now have Meghan Gordon from Platts.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Yes, on the Iranian fuel cargos heading to Venezuela, do you plan to target those with additional civil forfeiture cases like we saw earlier this summer or any other additional measures, or does the fact that they’re using Iranian tankers limit any options for stopping them?

MR ABRAMS: Well, our first goal was to make sure that no one other than Iran would engage in this trade. And it is interesting, actually. A lot of people have gasoline for sale. Certainly, China and Russia have gasoline for sale, but U.S. sanctions have led them to the view that they should not be engaged in that trade, and the Greek shippers have gotten out of that trade.

So we’re left only with Iranian tankers, Iranian-owned, flagged crude vessels that are engaged in that trade in a limited way. There are three on the way; that’ll provide a few weeks of gasoline. If you wanted to prevent the return of the kind of shortages that are now so common in Venezuela, you’d have had to leave Iran yesterday with another three tankers. You would need a shuttle service, which we have not seen.

So we’re watching what Iran is doing and making sure, in the first instance, that other shippers, insurers, ship owners, ship captains realize they must stay away from that trade.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Joel Gerhke, Washington Examiner.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I just wanted to follow up on the Iran question. I wonder: What practical actions do you believe that European countries could take to deter or interdict to Russian and Chinese arms sales to Iran? Would it be additional Iran-related sanctions on the Russian defense industry or new sanctions on Chinese companies? Would these actions find their legal basis solely in the UN arms embargo or could they be taken under the EU arms embargo authority or some other initiative?

And then kind of related to that, setting aside the particular legal dispute with the UN Security Council, I wonder: Are there any negotiations perhaps from British officials, any proposals for how the – how U.S. and European countries might cooperate to mitigate the perceived threats that all parties perceive from these arms deals?

MR ABRAMS: Yeah. Well, the European countries told us – the EU-3 and others as well – that they don’t want the arms embargo to end, but they were unable to take any action that kept the UN arms embargo in place. There’s a separate EU arms embargo.

What the European countries could do would be, number one, to enforce the UN sanctions that returned this weekend. Secondly, they could maintain a UN – sorry, an EU arms embargo on Iran and they could do that indefinitely. Thirdly, they could cooperate closely with us as – and when they see any effort by Russia, China, or anybody else to sell arms to Iran. We – again, we will be enforcing those UN sanctions.

In as much as the EU-3 and other Europeans have said to us, they really wish the UN arms embargo remained in place. They should take action to make sure, first, that no EU country engages in an arms sale to Iran, and second, they should be helping us to enforce the UN sanctions. And I do think that if the EU joined us in maintaining those sanctions, obviously it would have an impact on companies that were contemplating a sale.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great, thank you. Let’s see. Next up in the queue, Muath Alamri.

(No response.)

MS ORTAGUS: Muath Alamri.

OPERATOR: Go ahead. Your line is open.

(No response.)

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. I’ll give you one more chance. Muath.

(No response.)

MS ORTAGUS: Okay.

QUESTION: Hello?

MS ORTAGUS: Hi. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. I would like to ask you about the intelligence report that Politico has published about the story about the – Iran weighing to attempt to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to the – to South Africa as a retaliation for the Soleimani killing. If you could elaborate what is the impact could happen and what those targets that Iran is looking to attack.

MR ABRAMS: I would say first that – I would say first that no one should be surprised by reports in the press that Iran is contemplating or planning acts of terrorism. This regime has decades of blood on its hands for terrorist attacks not only near Iran, but all over the world, then we remember the plan to attack the Saudi ambassador here in Washington.

Other than that, I would only say that the State Department and the U.S. Government more generally are always very attentive to the need to protect American officials around the world, but I don’t want to comment beyond that on this particular set of press reports.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, thank you. Nick Schifrin, PBS.

(No response.)

MS ORTAGUS: Nick Schifrin.

OPERATOR: Mr. Schifrin, please press 1, 0.

MS ORTAGUS: Oh, sorry. I thought he was still in the queue. Okay. If he’s not in the queue, then let’s go over to Lara Jakes, New York Times. I believe she’s on.

OPERATOR: One moment. Okay. Ms. Jakes, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hey Elliott, hey Morgan. Elliott, could you please speak to the case, the curious case of Matthew Heath, this former military – Marine, I believe – who the Venezuelan Government is saying is a U.S. spy? I mean, assuming you won’t speak to whether or not he’s an agent, certainly if there is an American who is being kept – held captive in Venezuela, I would assume that is something that the United States Government is trying to untangle and get him back home. Could you please bring us up to speed on the – those efforts? Thanks.

MR ABRAMS: Well, there’s a limit to what I can say because I don’t have the privacy waiver that would allow us for – that would allow us to say a bit more. Obviously, we are always concerned when we get a report about an American who has been jailed in a foreign country. And Venezuela is particularly difficult because we do not have an embassy with a consular section in Caracas.

I don’t think there’s much else I can say about this case except that from everything I’ve seen, it’s – I can say that the United States Government did not send Mr. Heath to Venezuela.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. I think I want to try to get Nick back on, Nick Schifrin – he said he was on the line – PBS. Can we get him back on?

OPERATOR: Go ahead, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks, Morgan. Hey, Elliott. Thanks for doing this. Logistically, as I understand it, the resolution requires the U.S. to veto a resolution that would extend the sanctions, the snapback sanctions. So just making sure that’s right. Is the U.S. planning to introduce its own resolution that it would then veto, or do you think that’s not even necessary ahead of Saturday night?

And a larger question: If those other countries don’t enforce these sanctions, do you fear that dilutes other Security Council sanctions, including, of course, the ones you’ve been talking about and working on when it comes to Venezuela? Thanks.

MR ABRAMS: I think you’re misreading 2231. I think 2231 is pretty clear that any JCPOA participant state can send that notification to the Security Council about Iran’s failure to meet its responsibilities. And sanctions return 30 days later unless a resolution has been adopted that continues the lifting of sanctions which 2231 brought, the sanctions in all the previous resolutions – 1737, 1929, and so forth.

So one way of getting there is somebody introduces a resolution to continue the sanctions, and they’re vetoed. That resolution is vetoed. The other way of getting there is that somebody introduces the letter to the council notifying it, and then the resolution to continue the lifting of sanctions does not pass. Well, it’s not passing. No one has introduced it. So the sanctions snap back.

I do think 2231 is pretty clear on that. A – the introduction of a resolution and its veto is not required. And if you go back to the speeches of various officials made five years ago, they were very clear in saying that one country – we, in this case – can bring back the sanctions without the action of any other. So I don’t think that’s – I don’t think your interpretation of it was right.

As to the impact on other Security Council sanctions, well, needless to say we hope not. What the United States is doing here is following the exact text of the UN Security Council Chapter VII resolution, Resolution 2231. And if other nations do not follow it, I think they should actually be asked your question, whether they do not think they’re weakening the structure of UN sanctions.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thank you so much. Okay, I know we’re just – we’re running out of time here; I’ll try to fit one or two more in if I can. We had – sorry, guys, let me just the queue up back here – Nora Gamez from The Miami Herald.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) this. I just have a question about Venezuela. The U.S. has said it’s willing to negotiate with Maduro, his exit. Does the fact that the UN believes he has committed crimes against humanity makes this hypothetical negotiations less likely?

MR ABRAMS: I think it’s a – this UN report is a reminder of the nature of this regime. That’s why the United States introduced a few months ago our framework for a democratic transition, because we believed – and still do – that you need to get a transitional government in Venezuela that can hold a free election. If you look at this UN report and the nature of the crimes that it attributes to Maduro and the Maduro regime, you would really have to ask yourself, what is the chance that Maduro and his regime are actually going to hold a free election? Our conclusion was that there was no chance, which is why we said there needs to be a transitional government for the purpose of holding – in six months, nine months, whatever, twelve months – a really free and fair presidential election.

We’ve also, in the – we’ve said that to many, many governments around the world, and it’s one of the reasons why we think that the notion that there will be a free election on December 6th really defies both logic and everything we know about the nature of this regime. The problem is that some people seem to think that the – time is the issue. So, okay, not December 6th, maybe postpone three months, and then we can organize a free election. We do not believe that it will be possible to organize free elections under this regime.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Okay, let’s see, I had somebody from ABC here. Oh yeah, David Alandete from ABC.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. Thank you, Ambassador Abrams. I wanted to ask you, there’s a meeting this Thursday of the Grupo de Contacto with the European Union. It seems that the High Commissioner Borrell mentioned that maybe, maybe a postponement of the election would guarantee the European Union sending observers. He didn’t say this himself; his office said it to some journalists in Brussels. And I wanted to know if what you think can happen from this meeting of the Grupo de Contacto, and if the postponement of the election was acceptable for the European Union, what would the United States diplomacy say to that? Thank you very much.

MR ABRAMS: There are two issues here. The first, as I said a moment ago, is timing. No one believes they could, even if they wanted to hold a free election in December, that they could actually organize one. They need 30- or 40,000 voting machines. They need to import them from someplace. Five million Venezuelans are now outside the country and millions more have moved inside the country. So the updating of the electoral register is an enormous task that could not possibly be completed by December, again, even if you were really trying to do it with good will.

But there’s a second issue, and here’s where I worry a bit about some of the things that we’ve heard from Brussels. The mere postponement is not enough. The electoral conditions must change. As I noted at the beginning, and I won’t go through all of them again, but remember that they’ve changed the rules of the game recently. The electoral commission is completely in Maduro’s hands. There’s no freedom of the press. The major opposition parties have been taken over and regime people have been made into the top officials of those parties, so there are no conditions for free elections.

What am I worried about? What I’m worried about is a deal under which the European Union essentially says, “If – we’re not going to monitor elections in December. But if you postpone, then we can probably monitor.” Once you make that agreement, if you do, then you’re leaning very far forward toward monitoring. And if along the way – this is the danger – if along the way Maduro arrests this woman, Maduro jails that man, Maduro refuses to let these people out of prison, you’re – you don’t want to say, “Well, we made a mistake, and we’re not going to monitor, and we’re going to pull back.” There will be, I think, a normal human tendency to try to minimize or overlook both violations so that you can go forward with your agreement – “If you postpone, then we will monitor.”

I think that would be a terrible deal. And I think the EU should, in the International Contact Group meeting tomorrow and in other statements it makes, be extremely clear that timing is just one factor and the fundamental conditions have to be put in place. I have sometimes thought in listening to the phrase “basic conditions” or “what are the minimum conditions,” that what some of you spokesmen are saying is, well, of course in Europe we need to have all the conditions for free elections but in Venezuela you just need basic minimum conditions, and that’s the wrong attitude. Venezuelans are entitled to free and fair elections just as much as anyone in Europe.

MS ORTAGUS: Well, thank you, Elliott, you’ve been really gracious with your time. I’m going to have one more question and then many of you will be dialing in to our next briefing with . So can we go to Eli Lake, Bloomberg, for last question? Do we have Eli on —

QUESTION: Yeah, can you hear me?

MS ORTAGUS: Okay.

OPERATOR: Your line is now – oh, he just took himself out. One moment. Please press 1, 0 again.

MS ORTAGUS: Eli, I think we still have you.

OPERATOR: Go ahead, Eli, your line is open.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks so much for doing this, Elliott. Really quick, it’s almost 10 months since the U.S. killed Qasem Soleimani. Have you seen a deterrent effect as a result of that? Is Iran as threatening as it was before that action, or can you comment on that at all?

MR ABRAMS: Yeah. I would say that action did a very great deal to restore American deterrence and I would say a certain degree of caution on the part of Iran. Prior to that they or some of them were in doubt about the willingness of the United States to conduct an activity like that, and I think some other countries in the region were too. And I think it’s much clearer now that the United States is truly willing to act to defend itself and its allies and to act against terrorism in the region. And so I think as we’ve looked at Iranian reaction since then, I can’t mindread but there are indications of some degree of caution on the part of Iran about what reaction from the United States a particular Iranian action might evoke.

MS ORTAGUS: Great. Well, thank you, everybody, for dialing in today. We’ve gone quite over. Thank you, Elliott, so much for the extra time. And we’ll have another briefing this afternoon with and I hope you all dial in then. Thank you.

MR ABRAMS: Thanks. Bye.

Uncategorised

Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams On Recent Developments in U.S.-Venezuela Policy

29 Jul

Elliott Abrams, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela

MR BROWN:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Thank you for joining us for this on-the-record briefing with U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, who will discuss recent developments in Venezuela and our policy related to it.

Special Representative Abrams will begin with short introductory remarks and then he’ll have time for your questions.  As a reminder, the content of this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call, and if you want to go ahead and get into the question queue, dial 1, then 0.

Sir, please, go ahead.

MR ABRAMS:  Okay.  Thank you.  I am going to start with a few minutes of just comments about where we are now, particularly on the Bachelet report, then sanctions, then the fraudulent elections that are being planned.

First, many of you, I think, saw the recent reports from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.  Taken together with previous reports from the same body, they document the continuing decline of the already – already miserable human rights situation in Venezuela.

I just want to read a few sentences: “Bachelet,” quote, “remains concerned about the lack of independence of the justice system in Venezuela,” quote, “is concerned about the continuing use of the military justice system to try civilians.”

Quote, “Relatives of victims also reported various forms of intimidation, threats, and reprisals by members of the security forces to stop them from seeking justice.  In the most serious cases, this led to forced and prolonged displacement of family members or even, in some cases, their killing.”

Quote, “Documented cases included severe beatings with boards, suffocation with plastic bags and chemicals, submerging the head of a victim underwater, electric shocks to the eyelids, and sexual violence in the form of electric shocks to genitalia,” closed quote.

She was particularly concerned about the Arco Minero, the area where the goldmining takes place.  Quote, “The information available to OHCHR indicates that much of the mining activity within and beyond the Arco Minero is controlled by organized criminal groups or armed elements.  They determine who enters and leaves the area, imposes rules, inflict – impose rules, inflict harsh physical punishment on those who break them, and gain economic benefit from all activity within the mining area, including through extortion in exchange for protection,” closed quote from Bachelet.

Meanwhile, the killing continues; roughly 7,000 extrajudicial killings in 2019 and 2020.  Repression by the Maduro regime is increasing.  And in the years since Bachelet’s first report, which included strong recommendations for improvement, the regime has failed to implement any of those recommendations.

Now, sanctions:  One way we are attempting to counter this downward spiral in Venezuela is by naming and sanctioning the individuals most responsible for it.  You may have seen we sanctioned two more individuals this morning.  The Secretary, several days ago, announced sanctions against the head of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno, due to his involvement in significant corruption.  And we are offering a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest or conviction.  Most of you know that Moreno was charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering and bribery, among other crimes.  Simply put, he takes money to fix cases and he uses the office to keep the regime in power.

On the phony election, there is actually an important link here to the regime’s puppet supreme court and Mr. Moreno.  The parliamentary elections in December of this year are already rigged.  The CNE or National Elections Commission is supposed to be an independent body that manages them and is supposed to be selected by the National Assembly, but instead, the supreme court killed off negotiations on the membership of the CNE and appointed the members itself.  Then the supreme court removed the leadership of most of the opposition political parties and put in place instead phony leaders, in effect stealing the political opposition parties.

This is yet another demonstration that with Maduro still in power and in a position to manipulate the elections and their outcome there can be no free and fair election in Venezuela.  The conditions for free and fair elections are actually much worse today than they were in May 2018, when Maduro held the presidential elections that democracies all over the world have said were fraudulent.  This is why the United States has supported interim-President Juan Guaido and others in the Venezuelan National Assembly in their calls for a legitimate, democratic path forward.

President Guaido has called for an emergency unity government.  We’ve suggested a similar plan in our democratic transition framework for Venezuela.  Both plans seek to move past Maduro’s corrupt influence and to incorporate the voices of all Venezuelans in a real transition.  We continue to discuss these plans with countries in Europe, in this hemisphere, and all around the world, and to encourage our partners around the world to support these diplomatic efforts to resolve the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela.  Free elections and a return to freedom, the freedom and prosperity that Venezuelans used to have, are possible.  And the United States will continue to support the Venezuelan people until that day comes.

Thanks.  And with that, I’m happy to take questions.

MR BROWN:  Great.  If you want to get into queue, remember to dial 1 and then 0.  For our first question, let’s go to the line of Nora Gamez with Miami Herald.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this, ambassador.  I wanted to ask, President Trump recently made comments about a possible meeting with Maduro.  He then clarified what he meant.  But then last week, Ambassador James Story also said that the U.S. was willing to engage in some sort of communications or dialogue with the Maduro regime to seek a succession process.  So has U.S. policy changed?  Is the U.S. now willing to engage in direct talks with the regime?

MR ABRAMS:  Thank you for the question.  The answer is no.  We have said from the beginning that we have one thing to discuss with Maduro, and that is the details of his departure.  We’re happy to discuss that with him, but that’s the only thing to be discussed with him.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For our second question, let’s go to the line of Karen DeYoung.

QUESTION:  Elliott, there was a story this week that said that the United States was considering expanding its energy sanctions to diesel shipments to Venezuela from state companies in Spain, Italy, and private companies also in India, that the diesel is being traded for gas that is produced in oil fields that these companies have under contract in Venezuela and also with – that Venezuela is paying for it with its crude.  Could you talk a bit on whether – why this – how important is this swap arrangement to Venezuela and its economy, and what consideration is being given to sanctioning it?

MR ABRAMS:  Hi.  Thank you.  Well, the overall policy, as you know, is to deny income to the regime and to continue to apply pressure to the ways in which the regime operates, particularly in the oil sector, in the gold sector.  What I cannot do is discuss possible future sanctions.  We never do that.  I think you’ve accurately described that there are several companies that engage in swaps of crude for diesel, but what we’re thinking about, possible future sanctions is just something we can’t get into.  Sorry.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Next question.  Let’s go to Scott Smith with AP.

QUESTION:  Yeah, good afternoon.  Thank you, Mr. Abrams.  Indira Alfonzo, she’s the new CNE chief of elections.  She’s already been sanctioned by Canada for her role as a Supreme Tribunal of Justice judge.  Now she’s been appointed by the Maduro government to see the next elections over which will determine the control of the National Assembly, which Juan Guaido now heads and uses that position to claim the interim presidency.  Are there grounds for sanctions against Indira Alfonzo on behalf of the U.S. as well, or would you have to wait until after she presides fully over this election process to decide that?  Or you just said that you can’t give any indication into future sanctions, but is there any room for comment on sort of an approach to her position and her position of power in Venezuela?

MR ABRAMS:  Again, hard to comment on possible future sanctions.  I can comment more generally and say that people who – we’ve said from the beginning that people who are actively engaged in suborning democracy in Venezuela are engaging in sanctionable activities.  And we’ve sanctioned a number of them.  So whether it’s in the system of justice or in this case injustice, we’ve sanctioned people such as Maikel Moreno.  And we’ve done it, obviously, in the economic system.  And we’ve done it in the political system for people who are subverting that system.

So for activities previously in the judicial sector and for activities involving and subverting elections, people would certainly be engaging in sanctionable activities.  But I don’t want to discuss an individual case.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  For the next question – all right, let’s go to the line of Carla Angola.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for this opportunity, Daniel.  Thank you so much, Mr. Abrams.  The United Nations is warning Maduro that this military agreement with North Korea would violate the rules of the Security Council.  UN investigators discovered that Diosdado Cabello himself signed that agreement.  Do you have details of that military agreement?  And how serious is this new move by Maduro for the United States?

And I also ask you, Mr. Abrams:  Eighteen months have passed since Guaido rise and Maduro is still in power, increasingly clinging to the enemies of the United States.  What went wrong?  Are you going to try as far as the (inaudible) sanctions on waiting for an internal breakdown?  Do you think the time has come to explore other maneuvers?  Thank you so much.

MR ABRAMS:  Thanks.  On North Korea, I was unaware of this UN sanction and this correspondence between the United Nations and the Maduro regime until the press reported it.  So we will be looking further into that correspondence, the lack of a reply from the Maduro regime, and what the implications are.

For democracies all around the world, the conduct of the Maduro regime has been conduct that they have been willing in many cases to condemn.  But we’ve had a lot of countries say to us we don’t really have a means of imposing sanctions except through the United Nations or, in some regional cases, a regional body, whether it’s the EU or the African Union or the Rio Treaty.  A violation of UN sanctions is therefore potentially a very serious thing for the Maduro regime, because there are a lot of countries that would be willing in that case to impose sanctions, though they have not yet done so individually.  So we will be paying a good deal of attention to this.

It also shows, again, the nature of this regime.  We’ve seen recently the regime begin to build its relationship with Iran.  Iran, Venezuela, a pair of pariah states.  Iran and North Korea now – North Korea and Venezuela.  And I think one of the other impacts besides the potential sanctions themselves is reminding countries around the world about the nature of this regime and the partners that it seeks around the world.

Now, your second question was, well, you have been pursuing this policy for 18 months but Maduro’s still there, so what went wrong.  I would have to say we don’t view it that way.  Those of us who had experience with dictatorships can tell you that the removal of a dictatorship by the people of the country, the restoration of democracy, is always extremely difficult, and it’s extremely difficult because in most cases these dictatorships have control of the army and the police, the security forces.  They have – they are willing to use violence.  They have control of the means of communication, the mass media.  And they have no conscience.  They have no concern whatsoever about the people of the country.  So removing them, particularly removing them peacefully, is an enormous challenge.  People in Venezuela in a certain sense have been trying to do this for 20 years democratically, and more actively in the last couple of years as the Maduro regime has become increasingly repressive and especially since May 2018, when Maduro held a corrupt election and would not actually allow the people of Venezuela to speak about who they wanted to be president of the country.

So I would say my answer to what went wrong is what went wrong is that Nicolas Maduro decided to impose a vicious and brutal regime on the country, and look at the impact on Venezuela.  We believe, as do about five dozen democracies around the world, that this is the correct policy, that we need to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle to restore what they had, which is democracy.  So you will see the continuation of this policy.  As I’ve noted, we imposed sanctions last week; we imposed some additional sanctions this week.  I have no doubt whatsoever that this will continue and there’ll be more pressures imposed via sanctions and also diplomatic activity, which we’re very actively engaged in.

So this policy is going to continue.  We think that it is putting immense pressure on the regime and we think that the outcome is going to be the demise of the regime, the restoration of democracy.  I wish we had an exact timetable, and of course, in none of these cases is it possible to have one.

MR BROWN:  Okay, next question.  Let’s go to the line of Ian Talley.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) doing this.  So I presume that there have been no – any negotiations, even indirectly, on the proposal for – the proposal you all offered (inaudible).  Is that correct?  And the – last week, the ambassador – well, Ambassador Story made some comments.  I know you’ve talked about what you’re willing to negotiate with Maduro.  Have there been any talks specifically on Maduro’s exit directly or indirectly?

MR ABRAMS:  No, there have not.  The framework – the democratic transition framework – remains something that we discuss all the time, and I would say that there are a lot of countries around the world who believe that the basic idea of a framework, which is you need a transition government to hold a free election because you can’t trust Maduro to hold a free election, so short-term transitional government, hold a free election, elect a president and a parliament, and restore the country to democracy is the best route.  Dozens and dozens of countries who agreed with that basic formula.  And so there is, I would say, a lot of diplomatic activity going on around that basic formula and discussion of it.

The Maduro regime rejected it – I think I’m right in saying the same day, the day that it appeared – so there is no negotiation with the regime about that.  Maduro, as far as I am aware, has been unwilling as of yet to discuss the terms of his departure, and maybe he never will.  I mean, maybe he will someday and maybe someday he’ll just leave.

MR BROWN:  Okay.  Next question, and I apologize if I mispronounce this.  Let’s go to the line of Paula Lugones.

QUESTION:  The Argentinian Government issued a statement some days ago about Venezuela and Mrs. Bachelet’s report when marking the violations of human rights and calling for free elections.  Do you see as a change of the Alberto Fernandez government’s position regarding Venezuela?  What can you say about that, and do you welcome that position?  Thank you.

MR ABRAMS:  We welcome the support for democracy in Venezuela from every country, particularly from every democracy around the world.  We noted the remarks made in Geneva by the ambassador of Argentina about democracy in Venezuela.  And I would say none of this is surprising to us.  Argentina is a democracy.  It’s predictable and it is right that Argentina as a democracy would want to see democracy spread finally throughout the entire Western Hemisphere.  So we are always happy to see democracies in this hemisphere or anywhere else speak out about the conduct of the Maduro regime and the absence of democracy in Venezuela.

MR BROWN:  Next question.  Let’s go to the line of Eli Lake.

QUESTION:  Thanks so much for doing this.  Can you talk a little bit, Elliott, about sort of over the last 18 months, are you still seeing any potential wavering from some of the top security officials that probably now stand with Maduro, and can you can you speak about that?  Are there efforts to try to contact them to the opposition or things like that?

MR ABRAMS:  I really should not speak about that.  We have – we think, and we have said this from the beginning, that the military in Venezuela have a very important role to play, not just now obviously but in the future, because Venezuela is a country that has a lot of security problems.  Guerilla bands from Colombia, ELN, the FARC, armed bands, colectivos, violence in the Arco Minero, so – and very long borders and coastline.  So we think that for the future, for a democratic future, Venezuela needs a modern, modernized army to work with an elected civilian government.

As to the question of who we are talking to, I’m not going to get into that.  The reason, probably the main reason – there are a couple thousand Cuban intelligence agents in Venezuela – is precisely to prevent that kind of activity.  So I would say from – and as an official, I’d say the less said, the better.

MR BROWN:  Thank you.  Moving on to our next question, let’s go to the line of Luc Cohen.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon.  Thanks so much for doing this.  I just wanted to follow up on Karen’s question from before about diesel.  I do understand you can talk a little bit about the kind of different treatments given to swaths of diesel and gasoline on the – I suppose it’s not written in the sanctions, but in terms of the guidance perhaps, given to the companies involved in these swaths.  I mean, I think regardless of the fact that the disrepair of the refining network is the main cause of gasoline shortages in Venezuela, we did see – the shortages do seem to have been exacerbated since the end of the gasoline talks with Rosneft.  So I was wondering if you could explain kind of why the United States has been treating those two products differently.

And then just quickly on another topic, if you have any reaction to the Norwegian delegation traveling to Caracas.  Do you think there could be an opening there for potential mediation like we saw last year?

MR ABRAMS:  Why don’t I take the second one first and then go back to diesel.

On the Norwegians, we are, of course, in touch with Norway, and I’ve spoken to Norwegian diplomats since the return of that group that was in Caracas – a difficult journey for them if you think about it, from Oslo to Caracas in a time of COVID.  And we are always hopeful that a negotiation will be possible.

The purpose – we’ve said this before and Juan Guaido has said it many times – the purpose of all these pressures on the regime is to force it to negotiate a transition to democracy, to force it to negotiate seriously.  It’s been at the table several times but never seriously, never willing to negotiate the real question, which is a transition to democracy.

So we – I can’t say that I was particularly optimistic about this trip, because it does seem as if the regime has made up its mind it’s going to go forward with this phony election and that is its program for 2020.  But it’s always encouraging to see the Norwegians remaining active and engaged, and if we get to the point of having a negotiation in the coming months or next year, I think it’s perfectly reasonable that Norway would turn out to be key to that.

Diesel and other sanctions issues.  One thing that – we’ve noticed a few things.  Let me start that way.  We’ve noticed a few things recently.  One of them is that the regime is working very actively with Iran both to improve the output at its refineries and simply to buy gasoline.  And as you know, they did – I think it was four – four or five tankers landed with gasoline from Iran.  They also import diesel.

But we’ve noticed something else too, which is that they export fuel.  They export diesel, for example, to Cuba.  They export gas oil to Cuba, which would suggest that from the regime’s perspective the shortages are declining because they can do more importing and maybe they can do more production, and so they now feel themselves able to export.

Well, we follow all of that very closely and we evaluate it intermittently as new numbers come in, and we will continue to take a look at both gasoline and diesel and the situation that the regime is in.  And I would say it is significant for us that the regime feels its supplies are sufficient to be exporting, but I think I’ll just leave it at that.

MR BROWN:  Okay, thanks everyone.  Thank you, Special Representative Abrams, for your time today and for everyone who joined the call.

MR ABRAMS:  Thank you all.

MR BROWN:  And with that, the embargo on the contents is lifted.  Have a great day.

 

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